50 Years after the Voting Rights Act: Strategies for Moving Forward


Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 6:00pm


JFK Jr. Forum, Harvard Kennedy School, 79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA

Signing Voting Rights ActCongressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-VA), Penda D. Hair, Co-founder and Co-Director, Advancement Project, and Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

We will explore the current and future prospects for voting rights on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Voting has been the cornerstone of American democracy since the earliest days of the republic, and throughout our history the right has been progressively expanded, though in fits and starts, to our current universal suffrage. Yet a wave of legislation at the state level seeking to impose additional burdens on voting spells the end of our longstanding efforts to expand the right to vote. Given the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and the unlikelihood of a federal reauthorization of the VRA, what actions and strategies hold the greatest promise in protecting and promoting the right to vote in America? The speakers will address legal and on-the-ground perspectives in states across the nation as well as a legislative and political perspective on the prospects for federal responses.

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About the Speakers
Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott is currently serving his twelfth term in Congress. Prior to serving in the House of Representatives, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1978 to 1983 and in the Senate of Virginia from 1983 to 1993. During his tenure in the Virginia General Assembly, Congressman Scott successfully sponsored laws critical to Virginians in education, employment, health care, social services, economic development, crime prevention, and consumer protection. His legislative successes included laws that increased Virginia’s minimum wage, created the Governor’s Employment and Training Council, and improved health care benefits for women, infants, and children. He also sponsored the Neighborhood Assistance Act, which provides tax credits to businesses for donations made to approved social service and crime prevention programs. Congressman Scott has the distinction of being the first African-American elected to Congress from the Commonwealth of Virginia since Reconstruction and only the second African-American elected to Congress in Virginia’s history. Having a maternal grandfather of Filipino ancestry also gives him the distinction of being the first American with Filipino ancestry to serve as a voting member of Congress.

A staunch civil-rights advocate, Penda Hair co-founded Advancement Project in 1999 as an innovative racial justice organization that would help eradicate structural inequities that threaten the democratic process and work alongside community and grassroots groups. Hair manages a team of voting rights attorneys and helps overseas the organization’s voter protection work. In a post-Shelby world, her experience litigating Jeffers v. Clinton is especially applicable as groups across the country contemplate remedies and next steps following the Supreme Court’s decision to no longer allow preclearance for states with histories of racial animus and discrimination in voting.

Alex Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy. A historian by training, he has specialized in the explanation of issues that have contemporary policy implications. His book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000), was named the best book in U.S. history by both the American Historical Association and the Historical Society; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. A significantly revised and updated edition of The Right to Vote was published in 2009. His 1986 book, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts, was awarded three scholarly prizes. Keyssar is co-author of The Way of the Ship: America's Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600-2000 (2008), and of Inventing America, a text integrating the history of technology and science into the mainstream of American history. In addition, he is co-editor of a series on Comparative and International Working-Class History. In 2004/5, Keyssar chaired the Social Science Research Council’s National Research Commission on Voting and Elections, and writes frequently for the popular press about American politics and history. Keyssar’s current research interests include election reform, the history of democracies, and the history of poverty.